(Sorry–this is late, and really rough! From Prompt #4: Second person, shame. )

Debts You Haven’t Paid

1. The girl in first grade with the big glasses that took up half her face and one lens was smogged up or painted over because she had lazy eye and you asked her to borrow milk money to get chocolate milk and she said she only had enough for one but she’d give you her milk if you’d be her friend and you said you would and you sat with her that day in the cafeteria, but never again.

2. Student loans. Undergraduate, art history/women’s studies. Unemployable.

3. The man in the orange prole cap in the white pickup who followed you for miles on the state highway, making weird hand gestures out the window, and you thought rapist, you thought serial killer, and would have called 911 if your phone wasn’t dead but instead you took an exit quick with no signal and he followed you into the Wawa parking lot and as you were looking in the glove box for the pepper spray your stepmom gave you when you moved out he yelled YOUR CAR IS ON FIRE and you got out and it really was, but he drove away before you could thank him.

4. Student loans. Graduate school, studio art. Unemployable.

5. The chatty co-worker with Disney princess tee-shirts and squirrel teeth who had everything you didn’t have, a husband and a car that didn’t drop pieces of itself all along the road, and you were short on rent and asked her to borrow $500 and then you got another job and were supposed to meet for coffee to pay her the $500 but then your dog got sick and you ghosted her and have ghosted her since.

6. Student loans. When you decided, after 11 years of low-wage, no-insurance jobs to say fuck art, I’ll go to law school and make money, and lasted 6 months, but the loans are with you forever.

7. And now this kid you have, after all the pills, after all the tests, after all the calendars with angry red Xes drawn through one week each month, drawn so hard the paper punctured, and let’s not even do this, you said, maybe we shouldn’t even have a baby, the world is shit anyway, it’s useless to try, and then it wasn’t and you lay in bed two months out of nine, waiting for payback, waiting for karma, and now this kid is staring at you with eyes like a helix nebula, reaching for you with hands like starfish, and you want to tell her no, that you are a crap person and will probably be a crap mother, but that’s not what she needs from you, she is a planet and you are her sun and all you can do is shine for her regardless, shine in all your imperfect light.


  1. Sarah Freligh

    Kathryn, that last bit is light’s out great! I love how there’s a trajectory to each of the debts –the milk money, the thank you, the $500 the narrator owes the chatty co-worker–that pale in comparison to the BIG debt, what she’ll owe for a lifetime and then some to that child. I’m loving the particulars of each of those stories, too, and what it reveals about the narrator and her life. I don’t know, maybe ditch the student loans. There’s a trajectory there, too, and details of a life, but they undermine — at least, for me — the uniqueness of her particular plight.

    • Kathryn Kulpa

      Thanks, Sarah! I was worried that the child section might come off too sentimental, but I like your take about the crazy indebtedness (in so many senses of the word) this is going to engender. I thought the student loans were kind of a universal touch, and maybe funny in their repetition, but I can get rid of them. (And if I had that power, I would get rid of ALL of them!)

  2. Traci Mullins

    Kathryn, I just love the whole idea of this piece (don’t all of us have debts we haven’t paid?), but I never would have thought of doing it as a list, which works so well. Each scenario is an “ouch” of shame that made me squirm, but I felt nothing but compassion for her and want to confide my own flaws so she doesn’t feel so bad about herself. I love the ending because it creates a shift from regretting the past to stepping up for the most important relationship of her life.

  3. Catherine Parnell

    This is superb. It works perfectly and the end is calibrated and balanced. I’m a fan — thank you!

  4. Mikki Aronoff

    Oh my, this is wonderful. Perfect second person story. No shame in student loans, so I agree to jettison. Not paying them back is a reason to leave them. The last para knocked me out!

  5. Kathryn Silver-Hajo

    Wow, Kathryn, I don’t know where to start so I’ll start at the end with that knockout gorgeous paragraph. That could be a story unto itself. That said, my next favorite is #3. This is so perfect and relatable and I have one of those kinds of stories too which I tried to write about but was too ashamed (it’s much worse than yours actually).

    I like the listing of debts but wonder if somehow this could be told as a narrative or at least without numbers. Not sure why I’m saying this but maybe just something to play with or maybe just ignore me!

    There’s so much fabulous material here, Kathryn. I do see the point of possibly deleting the student loans, but what if instead you restructured them something like this: “Undergraduate student loans.” “Graduate school loans” “Law school loans” interspersed as you have them now. They don’t have the heat of the other “debts” but they do give a sense of what weighs on the narrator.

    This is going to be so good, Kathryn! Loved being in workshop with my favorite other “Kathryn!” 🙂

  6. Suzanne van de Velde

    Hi Kathryn — this feels so true. The details are killer. The girl in first grade is such an emotional zinger, a debt you probably felt guilty about every time you saw her, year after year.
    Since #5 is mostly about a financial debt, although clouded by what feels like your guilt at using her, I think dropping your student debt won’t be missed (especially since that debt to an institution). What those entries illuminate, though, is how your educational trajectory couldn’t be reconciled with earning a living as an adult (just going off the info here), which is pretty fucking resonant for many people. Did you work part-time at soul-torching jobs so you could get those degrees, since presumably the loan money didn’t cover all your expenses? Maybe if you could dig more into the experiences of those , where you left someone high and dry (sadly, I can come up with those examples)? And then, to actually get into law school but hate it and I actually love that you left it behind but the financial punishment persists.
    I love the orange prole cap kindness of strangers example, and how so often our assumptions ill serve us. For me, there are also debts unpaid to longtime friends.
    The last one, oh God. Yes, the way your baby looks at you, the surge when the symbiosis kicks in, and your imperfections don’t matter.
    (At least, not until she’s a grown-ass adult and is able to point out the ways in which you are now doing everything wrong…just speaking for an acquaintance).

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